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The Limits of Procedure

In a recent post, Tobold says:

After Everquest Next announced dynamic spawns with an ecosystem, destructible environment, and open world player housing, several people dismissed these claims as unrealistic with the argument that Ultima Online tried that and failed: Players kill mobs faster than they can reproduce, gather resources so fast that whole forests are turned into deserts, and build houses everywhere until no more flat surface is left. While that history is correct, the conclusion isn’t. As a counter-example look at Star Wars Galaxies, where open world housing clearly worked a lot better than in Ultima Online. So what is the difference, and how can a virtual world with a stable ecosystem be created without players destroying everything? The answer is simply in the size of the world, and the scale of the ecosystem.

Two paragraphs later though, he sort of undermines his own argument a bit (emphasis mine):

The Ultima Online ecosystem failed due to its small size and technical limitations of the time. But a procedurally generated world can be much bigger, even infinite. People don’t run out of world to modify in Minecraft. And if the world is big enough, you can put in enough mobs so that players can’t possibly make them extinct.

Er… if players cannot possibly make the mobs extinct, what’s the point in having an “ecosystem” in the first place?

But, never mind that. What I really wanted to talk about is the Minecraft bit. Because sometimes I get the feeling that “procedurally-generated” as a concept is being elevated as some paragon virtue of game design – a silver-bullet to boredom – when it is really nothing of the sort.

A procedurally-generated game solves exactly one problem: metagaming. That is not quite the correct word I want to use though, as you can still technically metagame a procedurally-generated world in several ways. Namely, by knowing its procedures. For example, no matter what Minecraft world is created (mods aside), diamond only spawns in layer 19 and below. Indeed, there is a whole bunch of Minecraft constants to consider (accurate circa 2010 anyway). All the Minecraft map being procedurally-generated does is prevent you from following a guide telling you to move North a hundred steps and then walk East to find a nice batch of Iron Ore near the surface. Avoiding those scenarios is certainly useful, and it’s always fun running into the truly bizarre and whimsical creations of the RNG gods.

The problem arises in treating the procedurally-generated whatever as “endless content,” when it is really not anything of the sort. As I talked about before, your knowledge of a game’s systems really only ever increases as you play; novelty has diminishing returns within the same game. Each Minecraft world generated may be completely different, but you are going to be doing the same sort of things each time: punch wood, make tools, make structure, dig for ore, etc. Different starting locations and details can spice up the gameplay for a time, but your “build order” is unlikely to change much no matter where you are.

Procedurally-generated content definitely has a place in gaming, usually in the context of roguelikes, but it will not solve any of EQN or any other MMO’s problems. Not that its application in MMOs made much sense in the first place – one of the defining characteristics of an MMO is a persistent world, which is incongruent with procedural generation. Even if it was just one world of infinite size (expanding at the edges), the amount of space surrounding objects of player interest would remain finite. And that’s assuming players would be willing to trudge out very far from their starting location in the first place.

No, just adding more space isn’t going to solve the issue. If anyone claims that an MMO’s world cannot be too big, simply point them at any given low-pop server of any game anywhere.